by Jan Hodgman
The Buddhist nun had lived on Black Bamboo Mountain for over twenty years.
She shaved her head after leaving a marriage she could only describe as
tasteless. The priest who ordained her thought it might be convenient to
have a live-in disciple for various chores and delights, but Koen had other
aspirations. After a few wranglings and gropings through morning and evening
sutra services, she convinced her ordination master to find a position for
her in a remote village temple. And so she had come to Black Bamboo Mountain
to live alone and perform the occasional funeral and memorial rites needed
by the villagers at the foot of the mountain. In return they brought yen
notes in red-bordered envelopes and wheelbarrows with vegetables and sacks
of rice eked out from a life on rocky soil. When Koen was off in the
mountains gathering wild herbs or meditating up in the stone hut next to the
temple graveyard, they would leave their offerings just inside the entryway.
The temple had been abandoned for over forty years before Koen came. The
villagers held Black Bamboo Mountain in awe. They found some solace now in
having their own village priestess living there, consecrating by her
presence a haunted, ominous place full of poisonous mamushi snakes and damp
clinging spirits. They sensed that the physical placement of the temple
buildings, a stone and wood enclave nestled up against a cliff face where a
spring charged from underground, somehow gripped unhealthy vapors and
unresolved spirits close to earth, a dank torpor invading the grounds. Tales
of the exceptional fervor of long-past abbots had been passed down and
embellished through generations; village mythology had transformed ardent
misanthropes into revered ascetics. The village could only offer meager
subsistence to the temple priest and before Koen there had been no one
willing to give up the more lucrative congregations farther down the valley,
where the rocky soil eroded into broad fertile rice paddies and lush
Every morning at four Koen rose from her bedding on the straw-matted
floor, dressed in her black
monkís robes, lit a stick of incense in front of the memorial plaque
dedicated to her aborted baby
(her husband had convinced her that the threat of deformity was great since
she had contracted mumps
her pregnancy), whispered a short sutra, and climbed the rocky path to the
meditation hut. Her feet knew the bumps and turns of the trail even on the
darkest of nights, though others found the leaf and moss-covered rocks
treacherous. At the top of the path, the meditation hut nestled at the end
of a small well-tended graveyard. Lofty cedars cast perpetual shadows on the
monuments marking the remains of the templeís previous abbots. Koen tended
the graves with care, sweeping the leaves daily, changing the water in the
bamboo vases every other day and replacing the shikimi greenery and flowers
of the season weekly. She gathered the greenery herself from the surrounding
woods and grew some of the flowers--chrysanthemums, godetia, peonies--in
pots in the few spots of the temple yard that received sufficient sunlight.
Koen lit a candle and a stick of incense in front of the serene Buddha on
the tiny hutís altar, then bowed and seated herself in lotus position on her
meditation cushion. She gazed out the screen door at the neatly swept moss
carpet of the graveyard before beginning her meditation. A sense of profound
settledness engulfed her, a feeling of place and connectedness, roots
reaching deep into the moss-covered soil and branches reaching high up
toward the sunlight and beyond. She struck a brass bell three times to
invite the beginning of meditation, each ring of the bell fading into the
soulful silence of Black Bamboo Mountain at dawn.
After dinner throughout the harsh winter months Koen gathered up leftover
rice and vegetables stewed in soy sauce and scooped them into a tin pan. She
pushed open the kitchen door with her elbow and with a loud rising and
falling whistle and a clicking of her tongue, called to the tanuki and other
needy creatures. Setting the pan at the base of a cliff of red soil, she
walked back to the kitchen, slipped her wooden geta off outside the door,
and took up her post over a sink doing dishes and watching for evening
visitors. Sometimes a greedy gargling and oily flapping of wings would
signal that the ravens had caught the scent, their inky shapes almost
indiscernible in the waning
light. But most often a pair of tanuki, badgerlike animals, would
cautiously wend their way toward the pan, one of them making a nervous pass
at the food before the smaller tanuki would steal from the shadows and join
her mate. Any unexpected noise or disturbance would send the two of them
skittering back into the blackness, sometimes attempting to drag the pan
The tanuki of Black Bamboo Mountain lacked the distended stomach of the
typical pottery version, like the one appealing to guests in front of the
village inn. In the depths of winter though their rust and chestnut coats
grew thick and fluffy, their earnestness in gulping down the treats Koen
left betrayed their inability to gather sufficient food on their own. The
tanuki so popular in folklore often clutch a jug of sake and wear a hat
fashioned from a lotus leaf. Dressed in priestís robes, the tanuki is seen
as the essence of gratitude, while stories abound of the tanuki as a
trickster, a fool, a grateful friend or a malicious nuisance.
Koen knew that most villagers considered tanuki to be troublesome or even
cited examples of raided chicken coops and dug-up sweet potatoes as evidence
of their wayward ways.
Koen was careful to wait until dark to set out her offerings, knowing that
the villagersí uneasiness
the spirits of Black Bamboo Mountain increased with deepening nightfall.
Only when there was an unexpected death among the parishioners was it
customary for anyone to ascend the darkened steps of the temple gate.
One evening as Koen turned back toward the house after placing a pan of
treats in the usual place, she caught the sound of someone walking on the
gravel path leading from the temple gate. As she debated whether to hide the
pan of food, old widow Kinoshita with the toothless grin waved and called
out, 'Abbess! Good evening! I've just finished my pickled turnips for New
and hereís a jar for you!'
Kinoshita-san's husband had been a hard-working farmer, with an
unquenchable thirst for sake. He died in a fiery car crash and left a widow
of forty-three and two sons. There were many good-natured jokes about widow
Kinoshitaís husband hunting, even in her present toothless state. She was
one of the more frequent visitors to Black Bamboo Mountain, bringing bunches
of long white radishes from her garden or a freshly-cooked delicacy like the
pickled turnips. On her way back down to the village, she'd encounter other
women, shake her head and say with a mixture of satisfaction and puzzlement,
'Such a lonely life in such a desolate place. A little hair and she'd still
have a chance.' Koen usually enjoyed these visits, but this night she was
concerned about what widow Kinoshita would say when she saw her feeding the
tanuki. 'Pardon me, I
had some scraps and thought Iíd leave them for the hungry ghosts,'
Widow Kinoshita clucked disapprovingly, and said, 'Everyone
knows you feed those damn tanuki. If you ever saw what they can do to a field
of sweet potatoes,
you'd think twice, but I guess I can't blame you for wanting some
company. They're a little furry for my tastes, but Lord Buddha knows I
wouldn't mind a pal of my own. Eeeee-heeeee!' Widow Kinoshita gave a
wide-mouthed cackle and bent over in two with her own joke. Koen enjoyed a
laugh, too, and the matter was forgotten.
When the winter winds abated and there was no longer a threat of snow,
ceased the nightly ritual, fearful that the animals would become completely
dependent on her offerings and forget how to fend for themselves. For the
first couple nights that she left off feeding them, she thought she caught a
glimpse of the larger tanuki hanging around her kitchen door, and once at
dawn she had seen him again scrambling up the path to the hut behind her,
but now it had been several weeks since she had seen a sign of them.
On a moonlit dawn in April Koen rose and threw open the shutters to her
sleeping room window. For a moment she thought it had snowed during the
night, the flash of white on the ground dazzling her eyes. Then she
remembered a breeze insinuating itself into her dreams, rattling the
shutters, and realized she was gazing on a carpet of freshly fallen cherry
blossoms. The dark silhouette of the immense branching cherry tree stood in
stark contrast to its blossom-illuminated splendor just the day before. Koen
put on her meditation robes, tied the cording around her waist and, upon
lighting the stick of incense in front of the memorial plaque for her lost
baby, was filled with a perplexity of anguish and gratitude, a deep
recognition of the evanescence of life.
The moon was sinking into the pine-topped hill as she
ascended the stone path. The hut seemed to embrace her in her state of deep
lighting another stick of incense before the simple altar, the wafting smoke
again spoke to her of
impermanence. She thought of a great Japanese Zen
master who made the vow to become a monk upon seeing the curl of incense
smoke at his motherís funeral. As she bowed toward her cushion, she glanced
outside and noticed that even in this season there were needles and leaves
and a few twigs scattered over the graveyard moss. She sensed her meditation
practice as just this-- sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. She sat and breathed
deeply, inhaling the smoke and the smell of the woods.
At the first striking of the bell, she thought she heard an answering
squeak, an almost imperceptible animal sound from somewhere that felt like
deep inside her. With the second ring, there was most certainly a louder
high-pitched whimper, a muffled answer to the bell. Koen deepened her
concentration and hesitated before the final strike of the bell. Her hand
strained in midmotion over the brass bowl, she drew in a breath scented with
cloves and sandalwood and expectation. As she tapped the bell for the final
ring, quieter than usual, she felt her breath enveloping the little hut.
Immediately a jumble of squeakings and squawkings broke out from somewhere
under the hut's floor, and Koen joined the clamor with a tumble of merry
So that's what her tanuki friends had been up to lately! The
tiny voices were silenced with a lower growl, and Koen, too, feeling
chastised, returned to the
source of her sitting with renewed vigor. She intuited rather than
felt the motion beneath her, could sense the huddle of warm bodies settle
into a collective calm that she, too, was part of.
Sliding the heavy wooden door to the hut closed a couple hours later, she
walked to the far side of the structure and noticed a crude tunnel dug
precisely under the spot where her meditation cushion sat. Koen squatted to
peer into the dark cave and a low growl issued from the indistinct depth.
She gave a sotto voce version of her rising and falling whistle to reassure
the mama, and again sensed rather than saw a relaxing of the brood. Making a
mental note to bring an offering of food the next time she came to the hut,
Koen started downward toward the temple yard.
Each day of the following week the tanuki under the hut seemed to grow
more comfortable with her presence, no longer shushing when she was on her
cushion. She followed in her mind's eye the tumblings and cavortings of the
little ones beneath her and saw the mama coming and going out the tunnel a
few times. One day after an especially deep meditation session, Koen felt a
presence over her right shoulder. Upon opening her eyes and turning her head
to glance out the screen door, she saw five furry pups crowded around the
doorway peering in at the candle on the altar. One of the tanuki shifted its
gaze to hers and with two high-pitched squeaks alerted the others and they
stumbled over each other toward their tunnel. Koen laughed aloud and clapped
her hands in joy, delighted with her new friends.
When she left the hut that morning she saw a few furry faces
peeping out of their hole and she bowed respectfully toward them and said in
a quiet voice,
'Tanuki-sama! Welcome to the celebration!' She reached the bottom of the
stairs and looked back up to see a pile of fur rollicking about in the
graveyard with squeaks and squawks, like little kittens. The thought came to
her that these were the previous abbots revisiting Black Bamboo Mountain in
tanuki guise, expressing their gratitude toward the mountainís sanctuary for
lives well lived.
That evening as Koen was finishing up the dishes the bell announcing a
visitor in the entryway jangled. She wondered if widow Kinoshita could have
died. She had complained of a bad cough around New Yearís and each
successive report indicated that she hadn't recovered. Just as she thought
this, Koen heard the dry hacking of the woman, and for a moment she thought
she might be perceiving her from the other side. This kind of event wasnít
unusual for Koen, who experienced the boundaries between life and death as
permeable. As the coughing subsided, Koen dried her hands and removed her
apron, and when she came into the hall to see the old woman standing in the
entryway, she blinked hard and then gave a laugh of relief.
'Abbess,' the widow addressed Koen, 'the villagers are having
a meeting at the village hall and asked me to come invite you.'
'Maaaaaa, such trouble for an aged woman. Iím sorry to put
you out,' Koen replied in a formalized manner, wondering what the meeting
could be about, requiring
her presence at this hour.
'No, no, no, no trouble. Please, come as you are and weíll
walk together,' said the widow.
Koen took her priest's vestment off a hook near the hallway
and draped it around her neck, tossed a shawl around her shoulders and
slipped on her
outdoor shoes, still wondering what this meeting could be. She hoped the old
woman would clue her in along the way, though she didnít feel she could
inquire directly. But the old woman chattered on about the moon that
morning, the state of her garden, how the village kids were growing so
quickly, and Koen couldnít catch any sign of what this was about.
When they arrived at the village hall, the widow pushed Koen
through the door ahead of her, and Koen took in the village elders kneeling
around the glossy
lacquer table, chatting amiably while the women scurried about
filling sake and beer glasses. Koen bowed formally with her palms together,
and in one voice the villagers cried, 'Abbotess, welcome!'
The men scooted together making a place of honor for Koen and she said,
'Maaaaaaa, such trouble you go to! Donít let me interrupt your fun!'
Upon being seated, the village head placed an empty glass in
Koenís hand and gestured for a bottle of beer. 'Just a sip among friends,' he
said, as he poured the
glass halfway full. Koen was swept along with the scene and
forgot to protest as she nodded in greeting to several of the villagers.
Putting the beer bottle down, the village head shouted, 'Kampai!
Cheers! To our illustrious
abbotess, guardian of Black Bamboo Mountain!' and all the villagers shouted,
'Kampai!' while several
of the women rushed to pour themselves a swallow to join in the toast. Koen
felt the flush
immediately as she sipped the beer, a physical reaction to the concentration
of attention fixed on
her. The village head cleared his voice in the manner of beginning a formal,
memorized speech and
said, 'Koen-sama. Indeed we are all indebted to you for your years of service
as abbotess and
protector of Black Bamboo Mountain.'
Koen shifted uneasily on her heels, sensing there was something more
than just gratitude
motivating this meeting and speech.
'For twenty-five years you have faithfully served as our spiritual
mentor, performing our
memorial rites and funerals in a worthy Buddhist manner, helping our
ancestors cross over to the
other shore. You have tended Black
Bamboo Mountain impeccably, serving the spirits of our departed abbots in an
exemplary way, and indeed, have provided us all with a model of Buddhist
virtue.' The grizzled man lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone and
continued, 'I might say I was one of those who was somewhat skeptical of
having a woman assume the position of abbot, but I have nothing but words of
praise and gratitude to offer you after your fine service.'
'After my service?' Koen thought. So there is some dissatisfaction, some
desire to replace me? This thought came to her not with panic or anger, but
with a deep sadness. Black Bamboo Mountain was indeed a part of her, and she
a part of it. She sensed how the contentment she had striven for in her
earlier days had indeed settled upon her in her solitary life on the
mountain. But how could she think of leaving? Above the boom of the village
headís voice and the hush of the assembly, Koen strained her ears to catch a
curious scratching sound from underneath the floor. No one else seemed to
'We of the village have conferred and, knowing what a great amount of
work it is to keep the
grounds of the temple to the extent that you have, we feel that at your stage
of life it is only
right that you be provided with relief from such an onerous task. We
therefore have drawn up a
design for a small cottage for your retirement, and Tanaka-san,' he nodded
with an ingratiating grin
toward one of the village elders, a wealthy widower retired from his sake and
business, 'has graciously offered a building site at the corner of his
property.' Again the curious
scrabbling of claws on wood focused Koenís attention, a noise that she alone
'Maaaaa, it has been my duty and, I may say, delight to be a
part of Black Bamboo Mountain these twenty years and I most certainly am not
complaining about the
work involved...' Many of the villagers present also saw through the village
immediately, knowing how Koen still roamed the
forests each spring digging bamboo shoots, and continued to rise earlier
than most of the farmers. 'But if it is the village's will to have me step
down, well......I donít know what to say. It's certainly a most generous
offer and I will consider it carefully...' Her voice became more distant, as
if even now she was drifting away from the village. The scratching on the
floor had ceased and Koen
strained to follow the actions of her invisible
companions. What were they up to?
At this point, the broad-shouldered president of the farmer's alliance
stood and said, 'As a matter of fact, we've consulted with the temple
authorities, and itís been arranged for my son, Kazuhiro, to obtain his
priest's papers and succeed you as our next abbot. As you may know, the
abbot of Tachitani, the next village, plans to step down from his position
and Kazuhiro will be taking over the duties of that congregation also.'
Koen knew she should be concerned, even alarmed at this turn of events,
but even now her
attention was concentrated more closely on her five furry companions outside
than on the unexpected
proceedings unfolding before her.
The old woman who had escorted her to the meeting gave her a nudge, and
realized the villagers were awaiting her response.
'Well, I thank all of you for giving me the opportunity to....' and at
this, a great clatter of glasses shattering on the kitchen floor diverted
everyone and the village headís wife appeared in the doorway brandishing a
Tanuki!' she shouted, and everyone laughed and poked each other, some of
vociferously shaking their heads and launching into tales of other furry
encounters. Koen, taking
advantage of the pandemonium, stood and excused herself, mumbling something
about 'her children' and
the women nearby giggled and made way for her to leave the hall.
Outside in the chilly evening, Koen gave her whistle then clapped her
in annoyance, shooing the tanuki on home ahead of her. She was joined by
widow Kinoshita, who said, 'Abbess, I know itís a surprise but the cottage
will really be quite fine. Any one of us would be proud of it. You can do
your gardening there, join us for our teatimes.....' she left off in
mid-sentence as she watched Koen hurry toward the temple steps, realizing
that though she may have taken her vows out of necessity, the abbess had
really been quite content with her life on the mountain. This came as a
shock, for it had been Kinoshita who had suggested the plan to the farmersí
alliance president when his son lost his job in the nearby town.
'Good-night, grandmother,' Koen called down from the gate of
the temple. 'Take care in the dark.'
'Good night, abbess. Think about it. Tomorrow you will see itís a good
plan,' said the old lady, though she knew now her words were false.
The following day when widow Kinoshita returned to the temple
to confess her role in the plan, carrying an offering of bamboo shoots dug by
grandchildren, the abbess was nowhere about. She pushed open the door to the
'Abbess? Koen-sama?' She noticed the place tidied up even
more than usual, and in the corner of the entryway was a bundle tied up in a
purple scarf with the templeís insignia on it. Resting on top were Koen's
vestments. The smell of incense suffused the air and Kinoshita-san, rather
than feeling a sense of unease, became aware of a supreme serenity. It was
not a new feeling; it was just that her preconceived dread of Black Bamboo
Mountain fell away and for once she could appreciate the soulful stillness
of the place.
Placing the bamboo shoots next to the bundle clad in purple, widow
Kinoshita turned to contemplate ascending the dilapidated steps leading to
the meditation hut. Somehow she knew there would be no answer to her calls,
and as she closed the door of the entryway and glanced up toward the temple
graveyard, she saw amidst the gravestones six tanuki pups peering down at